At Legislature: Budget, culture wars, redistricting rehash
Louisiana’s Legislature opens its 2022 regular session Monday with a welcome dilemma: how best to spend an influx of money the likes of which the state hasn’t seen in years, while again debating familiar “culture war” issues involving transgender athletes, race, vaccine mandates and abortion.
The Republican-dominated Legislature also will be faced with unresolved business from the February special session on redistricting of government district boundary lines, thanks to a veto of a new congressional map by Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards. There also are expected to be moves by some to change state House and Senate maps that survived Edwards’ veto pen.
After facing years of tight budgets, this year, lawmakers will debate how best to spend higher tax revenues and an influx of more than $2.8 billion in one-time revenue — $1.4 billion from federal pandemic aid, $700 million of surplus from the 2021 fiscal year and $853 million higher-than-planned revenue for the current year.
Among the ways Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards has proposed spending expected recurring tax revenue: $148 million for pay raises for Louisiana teachers and school support staff; $103 million in higher education faculty raises and $25 million more on early childhood education.
His suggestions for the nonrecurring revenue include earmarking $500 million toward the cost of a new Mississippi River bridge at Baton Rouge, $100 million toward a new Interstate 10 bridge at Lake Charles, $100 million for work on Interstate 49 and $25 million for rail transportation between New Orleans and Baton Rouge.
Edwards’ top fiscal officer, Jay Dardenne, outlined the governor’s proposals to lawmakers in January, acknowledging that lawmakers will want changes.
“Certainly, when you have money like this, which this Legislature, this governor have not had in a long time, there obviously are going to be lots of hands out, lots of demands and lots of suggestions on what priorities ought to be,” Dardenne said.
The Baton Rouge bridge, is a long-hoped-for project for Baton Rouge residents and anyone who travels through area at high-traffic times.
But approval of putting $500 million toward such a bridge is far from a slam dunk. The administration argues that dedicating the money now would help secure more public and private financing later. House and Senate leaders have questioned whether it’s the best way to spend the money.
“It’s hard to park a half billion dollars in excess money that may sit there for 10 or 15 years,” Senate President Page Cortez said in a webinar by the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana.
And while Edwards stressed that his budget proposal calls for recurring costs — like his proposed increase in teacher pay — are to be paid for with revenue that is forecast to be available annually, lawmakers will have to consider factors that could reduce coming years’ revenue. A .45% state sales tax enacted in 2018 to balance the budget expires in mid-2025, cutting annual tax collections by hundreds of millions of dollars each year.
Lawmakers met in special session in February to redraw district boundary lines for Congress, the state House and Senate and other government bodies. But Edwards vetoed the congressional plan, saying that, in a state where almost a third of the population is Black, lawmakers should include a second majority-Black district among the six Congressional districts.
The Republican-dominated Legislature could pass the same plan again — a bill to do so has been filed. Or they could interrupt regular session business to try to muster the two-thirds vote needed in each chamber to override Edwards’ veto. Ideally, the state will have a plan in place before qualifying for congressional races begins July 20.
Meanwhile, some lawmakers are unhappy that Edwards didn’t veto state House and Senate maps that don’t include majority-minority districts. There will likely be attempts to pass new plans to supplant the ones passed during the special session.
Some conservative lawmakers chafed at restrictions Edwards imposed on public gatherings in the early days of the pandemic, and also leveled criticism at New Orleans officials who imposed proof-of-vaccine or negative test requirements for entry into bars or restaurants. Even with the decline in cases and the lifting of restrictions, the issue remains alive.
Bills dealing with the issue include one prohibiting local governments from requiring proof of vaccination as a condition for participating in any “constitutionally protected activity.”
Last year, Edwards vetoed a bill a banning transgender athletes from competing on school sports teams of their identified gender. The bill has been reintroduced for this year’s session.
Advocates for LGBT people will again push to expand law prohibiting discrimination in housing to cover sexual orientation and gender identity.
Louisiana already has a 15-week abortion ban on the books, along with a total abortion ban that would take effect were the Supreme Court to overturn the Roe v. Wade decision that upheld abortion rights. Lawmakers in the new session have offered bills to ban abortion once a fetal heartbeat is detected (experts say that is about six weeks into a pregnancy).
Another anti-abortion bill prohibits the sale of abortion-inducing drugs without a prescription and creates the crime of “induced chemical abortion.”
Another bill vetoed by Edwards last year would have allowed the carrying of concealed handguns without needing a permit, safety training and background check. The bill is back for the 2022 session.
For proponents of stronger gun laws, there is a proposal to let more than a dozen south Louisiana parishes, including Orleans and surrounding parishes in the southeast and Calcasieu in the southwest, to enact gun laws that are more restrictive than the state, something no locality can currently do.
A bill spelling out educational requirements for public schools requires instruction on Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech and forbids teaching that one race is inherently superior to others. It will likely spark debate with language that also forbids instruction that any sex, race, ethnicity, or national origin is “advantaged, disadvantaged, privileged, underprivileged, biased, or oppressed relative to another.”